MIDWAY — The Heber Valley — known locally as the "Wasatch Back" — has been among the fastest-growing areas in northern Utah over the past several years. The area, which includes Wasatch and Summit counties, has seen its population jump 25 percent and its average home sales price nearly double since 2002.

That growth, and how to sustain it, was among the main topics for the "What's In Out Back" economic summit Monday in Midway. The forum brought together area business leaders to discuss economic development possibilities for the region just east of the Wasatch Front.

One of the key issues of concern is increasing opportunities for employment for the many locals who currently commute to better-paying jobs elsewhere, according to Wasatch Economic Development director Paul Kennard.

Kennard said 27 percent of heads of households travel from the Heber Valley into the Salt Lake Valley, Park City and Utah County for work — a trend that he would like to see change "to keep more jobs here locally."

Kennard said that a recently conducted work-force survey of local residents found that 77 percent would like to work in the Heber Valley if they had the opportunity. He said local leaders are striving to attract more businesses and subsequently more jobs to the area in an effort to bolster the significant economic development that has taken place in recent years.

"In 2006, our job growth was about 14 percent, the highest in the state," he said. "Last year, our job growth was about 8 to 9 percent — again, the fastest in the state."

Kennard said the top sectors for jobs in the area are tourism, government, construction, transportation and utilities. He added that much of the job growth has come from smaller start-up companies that are growing rapidly.

While the state's overall unemployment rate is about 3.5 percent, the jobless rate in the Heber Valley is about 2.5 percent to 3 percent, which has been a blessing and a curse, he said. Prospective employers often cite the low jobless rate as a concern, noting that there are few potential workers available. In reply, he noted that the community has some 2,000 commuters who would welcome the opportunity to work closer to home.

Kennard said changing that perception of employers and getting the attention of locals who are prospective employees is a long-term challenge his agency would concentrate on for the foreseeable future.

"We need some high-paying jobs that are clean industries that aren't going to pollute our environment that can provide livable wages," he said.

That may be easier said than done in the current economic climate, said keynote speaker Jeff Thredgold, economic consultant for Zions Bank. He said the nation and Utah have seen a drastic economic slowdown of late and it may be six to eight months before the recessionary tide begins to turn favorably again.

"We're impacted by the weakness in housing and we're impacted by the real problems in credit markets," he said. "It's difficult to get access to credit right now for homes or businesses, and mortgage rates are about a full percent higher than they should be."

Thredgold said that the recent Bush administration action to seize control of the nation's two largest mortgage finance companies — Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — could eventually be a strong stabilizing factor for the struggling economy and slumping housing market, which could then benefit areas like the Wasatch Back.

"Anything that gets up back to a level of economic certainty or at least minimizes uncertainty is a positive thing," he said. "Once you get some improvement and more rational performance from the financial markets, then the level of optimism from both consumers and corporate improves, and that will be reflected in stronger job growth across northern Utah."


E-mail: jlee@desnews.com